New York Times op-ed columnist Roger Cohen has penned some extraordinary columns on Iran in recent weeks. For his well-reasoned arguments, his forward-thinking approach, and his grasp of the nuance of US-Iran tensions, he should be applauded.
Back to topThe Unthinkable Option
By ROGER COHEN
TEHRAN — When it comes to Iran, the choice of metaphor is limited.
“I would never take a military option off the table,” Barack Obama declared during the campaign, a position unchanged since he became president.
“We are not taking any option off the table at all,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at her Senate confirmation hearing.
As for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, he tweaked the mantra this way: “The military option must be kept on the table.”
All three have also talked up dialogue with Iran. But the question, more pressing since Iran fired its Islamic satellite into orbit this week, remains: what in reality is this threat of force and what purpose does it serve?
I’ve read think-tank scenarios that have the United States bombing Iran’s nuclear installations at Natanz, hitting Iranian military bases to limit the response, imposing a naval blockade and infiltrating special forces from Iraq or Afghanistan. After eight Bush-Cheney years, such plans exist at the Pentagon.
To which my response is: Hang on a second.
The United States’ role in the 1953 coup here that deposed the Middle East’s first democratically elected government lives in memory. Any U.S. attack would propel 56-year-old Iranian demons into overdrive and lock in an America-hating Islamic Republic for the next half-century.
From Basra through Kabul to the Paris suburbs, Muslim rage would erupt. The Iranian Army is not the Israeli Army, but its stubborn effectiveness is in no doubt. Rockets from Hezbollah and Hamas, and newly tested Iranian long-range missiles, would hit Israel.
Chaos would threaten Persian Gulf states, oil markets and the grinding U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. war front, in the first decade of the 21st century, at a time of national economic disaster, would stretch thousands of miles across the Muslim world, from western Iraq to eastern Afghanistan.
It is doubtful that a bombing campaign would end Iran’s nuclear ambitions, so all the above might be the price paid for putting off an Iranian bomb — or mastery of the production of fissile material — by a year or so.
In short, the U.S. military option is not an option. It is unthinkable.
This is the poisoned chalice handed Obama by Bush, who responded to Iranian help in Afghanistan in 2001 by consigning Iran to the axis of evil, rebuffed credible approaches by the former moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, and undermined European diplomacy.
No, the real “Red Line” will be set by Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s leading candidate to become prime minister after elections next week, has said “everything that is necessary” will be done to stop Iran going nuclear. I believe him.
Never again is never again. There’s no changing that Israeli lens, however distorting it may be in a changed world. That could mean an Israeli attack on Iran within a year. If the U.S. military option is unthinkable, equally unthinkable is the United States abandoning Israel.
That is Obama’s dilemma. Netanyahu is right about one thing. The Iranian nuclear program, which Iran implausibly says is for civilian purposes, is “the greatest challenge” now facing 21st-century leaders. If Obama fails, his “new era of peace” will become the bitterest phrase of his inaugural.
I asked Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and secretary of one of its highest state organs, the Expediency Discernment Council, how he sees the U.S. threat. “America will not do anything military within the next 10 years,” he said. “What the U.S. needs to do now is regroup, repair, reconstruct.”
And an Israeli attack? “Maybe, but it would be one of its stupidest decisions.”
There is little time to lose. Vice President Joseph Biden and senior Iranian officials, including Ali Larijani, the speaker of Parliament, will mingle at the Munich Security Conference this weekend. They should talk.
But only Obama can overcome the gridlock. He must break with the Bush years in more than words. That requires a solemn declaration that the United States recognizes and no longer seeks to destabilize the Islamic Republic — an implicit renunciation of force.
A threat, in Iranian eyes, can only come from a domineering power, the very U.S. attitude this country cannot abide.
I think the tightened sanctions being contemplated by Obama are a bad idea.
The sanctions don’t work; they enrich the regime cronies who circumvent them. Plunging oil prices are a cheaper weapon. They will concentrate Iranian minds as the economy nose-dives.
Decisiveness is foreign to the many-faceted Iranian system. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and ultimate arbiter, will not easily be swayed from a course that would shred the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, of which Iran is a signatory, among other disasters. But reason can still prevail.
It was Rezai, back in the late 1980s, who wrote Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, telling him the course he had vowed never to alter — prosecuting the war against Iraq until victory — had to be abandoned or disaster would follow. Khomeini changed his mind. Peace came.
Khamenei’s ultimate duty is to preserve the revolution by being true to Khomeini’s example. Obama might, obliquely, remind him of that.